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Justice: State income tax filing deadline, school closure order extended for coronavirus

Before making a hasty exit from the daily West Virginia coronavirus briefing, Gov. Jim Justice announced that he is extending the state school closure order to April 20 and said he is directing the Tax Division to push the personal income tax filing deadline to July 15, to correspond with the federal extension.

Justice said that, as governor, he does not have authority to extend the tax filing deadline but is directing Tax Commissioner Dale Steager to proceed with that action.

Justice said two issues prompted his decision: Taxpayer convenience, to avoid forcing people to have two filing deadlines, along with concern about how the extension would increase state revenue shortfalls in the budget year.

He said that having a better idea now, after Tuesday night’s marathon U.S. Senate negotiations, of how a nearly $2 trillion federal economic stimulus plan will work, state Revenue officials are more confident they can forego income tax payments this budget year.

“The thing that is pushing us over the hump here, and giving us the opportunity and the promise to go forward with this, is that we do now have a lot more insight into how the [federal] government stimulus dollars will work, and how they’re going to flow,” Justice said.

Not surprisingly, April is the largest month for state income tax collection, with the Department of Revenue projecting $339.3 million in collection for the month. (Personal income tax collection in other months this budget year are projected to range from between $103.7 million to $224.2 million a month.)

Justice also announced that he is waiving, until May 1, interest and penalties on late property tax payments. Property taxes are due March 1, and interest and penalties normally begin accruing on unpaid tax tickets beginning April 1.

Justice exited the daily briefing after his comments, saying he was leaving to participate in a phone call with the White House regarding issues of securing additional supplies for the state.

Before departing, the governor also announced that he is extending the statewide school closure order, moving the earliest return date back to April 20.

“We’re hopeful our kids will go back to school at some point in time,” he said. “Right now, we’re not there, by any stretch of the imagination.”

Schools have already been closed for nearly two weeks, and Wednesday’s order closes them for another three. This means that county school systems will have to prolong their efforts to feed children, but not in large groups, and provide them distance education, through online learning — and other means, for students who possibly don’t have computers or reliable internet access.

On Sunday, state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch issued guidance telling counties they could not “ask staff to be present in schools unless they are volunteering for meal preparation and distribution.”

Regardless, updated guidance that his Department of Education issued Wednesday says that, “in order to continue to receive federal funding to feed children, county school systems must continue to manage the school meals programs.”

The guidance says school employees, department staff “and community organizations across the state will support county food distribution.” The education department said the West Virginia National Guard, Department of Agriculture and Division of Tourism also have been helping feed children.

“Efforts are underway to address how grades and GPAs will be calculated in a manner that is equitable for all children,” education department spokeswoman Christy Day said Wednesday. “Those details are forthcoming.”

The department said in a news release Wednesday that, “during this unparalleled time, we must avoid assuming that continuity of education outside of typical school buildings only can occur through online means. Counties will continue to provide student engagement opportunities using learning materials, phone contact, email, technology-based virtual instruction or a combination of all of the above to meet student needs.”

Burch’s Sunday guidance had said that, “for those whose plan also includes the use of paper and pencil packets sent to children’s homes, we strongly advise that you do not expect that work to be returned to teachers for grades. At this point in the process, our goal should be to maintain engagement with our children, and to assist in keeping their skills sharp.”

Justice’s announcement seemingly puts him at odds with President Donald Trump, who, on Tuesday,said he’d like to see coronavirus restrictions eased and the United States reopened by Easter Sunday, April 12.

Also during Wednesday’s daily briefing:

  • Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University, said an upsurge in positive cases of coronavirus from Tuesday to Wednesday shows that the state is entering the logarithmic phase of the spread of the virus, where cases will rise exponentially.

He said it is more critical than ever to practice social distancing, proper hygiene and other efforts to avoid transmission of the virus.

Marsh also said the virus seems to be infecting younger people in America at higher rates than in hotspots in China and Italy, and urged young people — whom he said thought they were immune to COVID-19 — to take the precautions seriously.

  • Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said efforts are underway to significantly upgrade the COVID-19 dashboard on the DHHR website.

“We’ve got quite a few different folks helping us put that together,” he said.

Currently, unlike some states that have detailed dashboards, with county-by-county breakdowns, and graphics on issues such as distribution of positive cases by age and gender, the DHHR website provides rudimentary data, denoting total positive tests, total negative tests, deaths and tests pending.

Crouch said he’s hopeful the new dashboard will launch by the first of next week, and said information on the site will be updated three times a day, beginning Friday.

Volunteers answer the call, sewing handmade masks for hospitals

As a former critical care nurse in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Sara Morrison is picking up her needles and accepting a new kind of call to action: She is joining dozens of other Charleston Area Medical Center volunteers who are sewing medical masks for those on the front lines of her profession.

“There is such a need; we have to do something,” she said. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m willing to do whatever you want me to do, and I do sew.’ ”

She understands firsthand the need for fresh masks and is alarmed by the current shortage.

“Being an ICU nurse, every hospital, every person that’s in and out of an infectious environment needs to wear their PPE, personal protective equipment, because, if not, you’re getting it on you, you’re going from one patient room to another. And also other staff is working with you,” she said.

“You may go in and out of that room, just that one room, several times simply because you’re doing meds, changing the patient, changing their IV, just general care, and once you’ve been in there, that mask, it’s contaminated.”

Volunteer coordinators with CAMC posted the request for hand-sewn masks late last week and have been inundated by seamstresses willing to help. They’ve streamlined the drop-off procedure to a single location — the shuttered CAMC Lighthouse Childcare & Development Center at 3410 Virginia Ave., in Charleston’s Kanawha City.

“We have had to suspend our volunteer services in the hospitals, so this is a way for those who can sew to help out during this critical time,” said Kelly Anderson, a registered nurse and CAMC’s director of volunteer services.

“In lieu of hospital-grade masks, these will serve as a barrier for hospital personnel to protect the mucus membranes of their noses and mouths,” she said.

“We can’t say that it’s as good a protection as a hospital mask, because it’s not, but we’re trying to provide our front-line team with the equipment they need to do their jobs in the safest way possible and in this crisis that may be the safest way possible.”

Morrison got supplies late Saturday and, by Monday morning, had made 30 masks, complete with a pocket for additional filtration. By Tuesday, the hospital had received roughly 600 masks, with more coming in each day.

A list of equipment and instructions is available at CAMC.org.

For Morrison, helping out in any way she can is part of a sacred duty.

“In my mind, they say, ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine.’ In me, I’m a nurse. I will always be a nurse,” she said. “It is probably the most worthwhile thing I have ever done in my whole life. It’s part of who I am; it’s in my heart.”

She compares the coronavirus crisis to others in years gone by.

“I remember when we first started taking care of the AIDS patients and the stigma and the frightened staff and, again, we had to discuss PPE then, going in and out of rooms and learning about the disease itself so we could take better care, and that’s part of what we’re fighting now,” she said.

The lack of masks, she said, is not unlike the shortage of functional equipment for soldiers on the front lines of a different kind of battle.

“When we first went into Afghanistan and we were hearing about the bullet-proof jackets that weren’t working, it kinda feels that way,” she said. “When you don’t have the right equipment to keep you safe to do your job, I think it’s scary.”

For more information on donating homemade medical masks, visit camc.org or call 304-388-7426.

Senate rushes to approve $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill after landmark agreement with White House

WASHINGTON — The Senate moved Wednesday evening to pass a $2.2 trillion emergency relief package designed to flood the U.S. economy with money as households and businesses continue to reel from the coronavirus outbreak.

But shortly after announcing the deal, Senate leaders struggled to fend off a number of last-minute snags, and they encountered various hurdles as they tried to write the bill’s fine print.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has demanded changes to help his state deal with new virus cases. Four Republican senators on Wednesday said a provision in the bill needed to be fixed immediately or it would incentivize people not to return to work. And House Democrats wouldn’t provide a firm timeline of when they might vote to pass the bill.

The final-stage drama was the latest twist for the massive spending bill, which had snowballed from President Donald Trump’s push for an eight-month payroll tax cut into the largest emergency relief bill in American history.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the agreement on the Senate floor at about 1:30 a.m., after a long day of talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other administration officials.

“I will sign it immediately,” Trump said Wednesday evening as Senate lawmakers tried to set a time for a vote.

The bill would extend $1,200 to most American adults and $500 to most children, create a $500 billion lending program for businesses, cities and states, and another $367 billion employee retention fund for small businesses. It would direct $130 billion to hospitals and provide four months of unemployment insurance, among other things.

Lawmakers and the White House were bombarded with lobbyists and special-interest groups seeking assistance in final days of negotiations, and it snowballed from $850 billion to $2.2 trillion in just a matter of days.

As confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States climbed swiftly to over 60,000 Wednesday with more than 800 deaths, lawmakers themselves acknowledged that no amount of economic relief from Congress could stop the pain for the American public.

Many Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, including 1 million in California this month alone. In addition to layoffs, many workers are dealing with salary reductions or furloughs. And, despite Trump’s hope to restart much of the economy by April 12, there are growing signs that the economic drag could last well into the second half of the year.

House Democrats had said they would vote on the legislation no sooner than 24 hours after it was introduced in the Senate and that the Senate delays kept pushing the bill’s timeline back.

About half of the country’s coronavirus cases are in New York, and the health care system around New York City is completely overwhelmed, Cuomo said. Many hospitals are still rushing to find face masks and other protective equipment. Cuomo said the bill would be “terrible” for his state and added, “We need the House to make adjustments.”

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Rick Scott, R-Fla., Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised concerns of their own. They said a “drafting error” in the bill would create incentives for companies to lay off workers, instead of retain them on the payroll, complaining that the design of unemployment benefits would allow some workers to make more money on unemployment than at work. But it was unclear if Senate leaders would make the change — the provision was a key demand from Democrats.

Later Wednesday, Trump told reporters he had spoken with some of the senators to address their concern, and White House officials did not expect the issue to derail the bill from passage.

“Our expectation is this bill passes tonight and gets to the House tomorrow,” Mnuchin said.

The legislation ensures that taxpayer-backed loans cannot go to firms controlled by Trump, other White House officials or members of Congress. This means that Trump-owned properties, including hotels that have been affected, cannot seek taxpayer assistance.

The airline industry, which has suffered huge losses in the past two months because of canceled flights and travel restrictions, would be a top recipient in the bill. Passenger airlines would qualify for $25 billion in loans and certain other guarantees and also have access to $25 billion in things such as grants, that might not have to be repaid.

Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said he would have preferred long-term low-interest loans to airlines, instead of grants, “But we had this argument, we had this discussion, and it turned out the way it did.”

He said he intended to support the legislation as written.

Cargo airlines and suppliers would qualify for a different batch of money.

Another provision of the bill would authorize $17 billion in assistance for companies deemed crucial for U.S. national security.

There’s also an employee retention tax credit for many firms affected by the coronavirus, and provisions to allow businesses to defer payment of payroll taxes for two years.

The legislation’s significant boost to unemployment benefits would expand eligibility and increase payments by giving laid-off workers $600 a week for four months on top of the benefits already provided by states. Mnuchin described the approach as the most efficient method available, since the alternative would be dealing with individual state systems, some of which are badly outdated.

The surge of new applicants for jobless claims has flooded a system that isn’t designed for a flood of new applicants. But even with all the new funding, it’s unclear how smoothly any of the changes might work. For example, the bill would dramatically expand the Small Business Administration’s ability to guarantee loans, but millions of companies could seek these guarantees all at once, putting enormous pressure on a system that has never been tested in such a manner.

After falling 10,000 points in two months, the Dow Jones industrial average regained more than 2,500 points Tuesday and Wednesday amid optimism about the recovery package. The precise effect of the legislation could take months to understand. Many businesses have been hammered, perhaps beyond repair, by the economic impact of the virus.

The prolonged effects could be different in various parts of the country.

As the bill was coming together in the final days, Democrats fought to make numerous changes. For example, the White House and Republicans agreed to allow an oversight board and create a Treasury Department special inspector general for pandemic recovery to scrutinize the lending decisions and detect abusive or fraudulent behavior.

The bill also contains a grab bag of provisions that might seem to range far afield from the coronavirus pandemic, including $13 million for Howard University, $25 million for Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and $75 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities National Endowment for the Arts. Senate aides said those allocations and others are justified to help the institutions prepare for and respond to the coronavirus.

Although Republicans have been attacking the inclusion of funding for the Kennedy Center, Trump said he personally approved of it, saying, “the Kennedy Center has suffered greatly.” Trump noted that it started out as a Democrat request, adding, “You know, it works that way. The Democrats have treated us fairly. I really believe that we’ve had a very good back-and-forth. And I say that with respect to Chuck Schumer.”

Trump acknowledged, though, that assisting an institution like the Kennedy Center might come across like “not a good soundbite but that’s the way life works.”

If the Senate passes the bill, the next step is a little less clear. The House is out of session, so action there could take longer, depending on whether lawmakers can agree to pass the bill by “unanimous consent,” which would require agreement from all members of the chamber.

One outspoken liberal — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — has already suggested she could oppose it.

Many members have voiced concern about returning to the tight quarters of the Capitol, with at least two House members testing positive for coronavirus and others in quarantine. Another option, which McCarthy endorsed Wednesday, would be to pass the legislation by “voice vote” in the House. That could allow any members who wanted to return to Washington to debate the issue publicly to do so, before passing the legislation without a roll-call vote that would require a quorum to be present. McCarthy suggested time for debate should be allowed on the House floor.

“I know we’re in a very challenging time, but I don’t think we should pass a $2 trillion package by unanimous consent,” McCarthy said.

Still, all sides expressed eagerness to move swiftly.

“This is going to be enormous help for the American workers and the American economy,” Mnuchin said.

Congress already has passed two smaller coronavirus relief bills: an $8.3 billion emergency supplemental measure for the health-care system and a $100-billion-plus bill to boost paid sick leave and unemployment insurance and provide free coronavirus testing.

Closed casinos, bars cost WV $9M-plus a week

West Virginia is losing more than $9 million a week from the shutdown of state casino and Limited Video Lottery gaming.

Meeting telephonically Wednesday, the Lottery Commission discussed multiple aspects of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact but did not mention the most obvious issue — lost revenue.

Casino video lottery machines, table games, sports wagering and Limited Video Lottery gaming accounted for 84% of total Lottery revenue of $95.1 million and profits of $44.7 million in February. That calculates to an average profit of $9.4 million a week.

Barring major winter storms, cold-weather months such as February are generally high-revenue months for the state’s five casinos and the bars and clubs offering LVL.

Casino and LVL accounted for 83% of the $746.2 million in revenue and $337.2 million in Lottery profits for the first eight months of the budget year.

Just seven Lottery staffers appeared in person for Wednesday’s meeting, during which Executive Director John Myers discussed steps taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Those steps include most Lottery employees working from home. Staffers were spread out Wednesday in the Lottery headquarters’ large 10th-floor conference room.

Myers said other measures include leaving deliveries of scratch-off ticket bundles in the warehouse unopened and untouched for 72 hours, to allow time for potential virus droplets on the packaging to die off.

“A lot of things have been thrown our way,” Myers told the commission, “and the folks here have adapted well.”

The pandemic will delay the launch of a new Keno game, which will be available to all Lottery retailers under legislation passed last year. The current version, Travel Keno, is available only in establishments with state-issued alcohol licenses.

The new game, Keno Go, now is scheduled to launch sometime in June, instead of May, commissioners were told.

Drawings will take place every three minutes, instead of the current five, and results will be posted on the Lottery’s mobile app so that convenience store operators will not be burdened with having to post winning numbers.